Saint László is more Asian than most of our kings

By his genome composition, King Saint László was even more closely linked to the conquering Hungarians and carried fewer European genes than the kings of later centuries. Tamás Pataki's interview with Endre Neparáczki, Director of the Research Centre for Archaeogenetics at the Institute of Hungarian Research, was published in the weekly Magyar Demokrata.

- Did you know that the original man was Romanian?

- I may have heard that joke before...

- And half of it is no joke. Spinoza Prize-winning Dutch researcher Mihai G. Netea, a Romanian professor of medicine, has written a book on the genetics of the Romanians, in which he claims, among other things, that the Romanians have been living in what is now Romania for 50,000 years, while the Hungarians arrived in Transylvania just over a thousand years ago. Do you take up the gauntlet?

- In this interview, the researcher claims that his research team is writing about their own findings. Now, a study on the analysis of Palaeolithic bone remains found in Romania was published in 2015, and Mr Netea is not among the authors, nor does the article contain the claims he falsely quotes. Later, another publication was published in which the authors report the genome of a female sample from the Neander Valley - Netea is listed as the umpteenth co-author. In this article, the authors literally state that the sample is not the ancestor of any recent population. In summary: there is nothing to take up.

- So far, European nations have registered for their Dacian, Scythian, Etruscan and Sarmatian ancestors. Does this signal a trend reversal, are people looking for more ancient ancestors?

- 50,000 years ago, there were not only Homo sapiens sapiens, but also other anthropoids living on Earth. In this time span, human geneticists are studying the evolutionary relationships of hominids, not their ethnicity. If a researcher wishes to link different species of humans to a genus, that is their right, but they are doing so beyond the bounds of science. Classical culture-creating nations compete not on how long they have been trying to create something lasting, but on whether or not they can ever give humanity a lasting, moral, ethical surplus. A nation can do this in a few generations, as the steppe peoples did with the introduction of trousers or by valuing women much more than the contemporary western societies

- So, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that culture creation is more important than genes, but at the same time genes may carry the tendency to create culture. Can that be true in this form?

- At the societal level, it is culture creation that is important, which is not directly determined by genes. No gene has been scientifically linked to a predisposition to create or consume high culture. There is no correlation between the two. Our genetic inheritance is encoded in our eye or hair colour or our ability to digest milk in adulthood. However, it is not just genetics that determines who we become. Environmental influences are very important, but complex traits such as intelligence or the ability to 'create culture' are difficult, if not impossible, to study. It also pushes the ethical boundaries of science, which also needs to be taken into account. Not so long ago, American geneticists wanted to study the genetic background of regions with high and low IQ. In today's research world, this is too much: the researcher has been subject to many attacks, and the question itself has been considered racist.

Endre Neparáczki, Director of the Research Centre for Archaeogenetics. Source: T. Szántó György/Demokrata

- The renowned Romanian scientist also claims that the genes of Romanians and Hungarians are largely identical, with Romanians generally carrying only 20 per cent of the Dacian gene. Am I right in thinking that this latter "fact" fits into the category of science fiction?

- Archaeogenetic research on ancient or medieval samples excavated in what is now Romania has only just begun. There are no published data on the ancient Dacians, while the first results based on new generation sequencing were published this year on this area from the Migration Period. In other words, we do not know the "Dacian gene", so estimating its proportions in the recent population is quite amusing. In our own research on the Gepid period, we noted that the Gepids received a significant part of their maternal lineage gene pool from European prehistoric (mainly Bronze Age) cultures, and that we should expect a significant local influence on maternal descent. However, there is so little data available at present on neighbouring groups and the local population before the Gepids that further analyses are needed. So far, there is a lack of region- and period-specific data that would allow us to draw far-reaching genetic conclusions.

- With your participation, a new algorithm has been used to investigate the correlation between the maternal lineages of the already reported archaic and recent populations. It was found that the vast majority of the recent Carpathian Basin population can be traced back to a Copper Age (4500 BC-2800 BC) - Bronze Age (2800 BC-700 BC) core population, while eastern migrations had a minor genetic impact on the population during the Árpád era. It seems to be in line with the opinion of your Romanian colleague. Based on this, who are we Hungarians?

- The data on recent Hungarians can be considered estimates for the time being, which may become significantly more precise in the near future, as we are currently working on the compilation of a region-specific, representative genome database of contemporary Hungarians. Based on the mitogenome (not the whole genomes), it was concluded that it is worth going back at least to the Bronze Age to explain the presence of some maternal lineages. So the data show that the Carpathian Basin has been continuously inhabited from at least the Bronze Age to the present day. But that does not mean that the Bronze Age people were of Hungarian or even Romanian nationality, they were a Bronze Age population.

- So, the migratory waves settled on this Bronze Age population. Were they constantly expanding and mixing? What did Árpád's Hungarians bring along with them? The language, the culture, the establishment?

- I think that the most significant result of our archaeogenetic research is that we have proved that the founding Hungarians can be considered the genetic ancestors of today's Hungarians.

- But common sense would suggest that this is natural.

- This was not without doubt, despite the fact that they were the only ones with whom the Hungarians were identified. The genetic heritage of the conquerors could have been completely wiped out by the Tartar invasion and the Turkish devastation. As there is growing archaeological evidence that the earlier Avar population lived through the period of the conquest, it is no longer possible to narrow down the block Hungarian population of the Carpathian Basin in the 11th century to Árpád's people. However, it can be deduced from today's Hungarian genetic data that we have an Eastern heritage that can be best explained by the lines revealed in the archaeogenetic analyses of Árpád's Hungarians. Furthermore, archaeogenetic research has led to the paradigm-shifting view that the Carpathian Basin was demonstrably not empty when Árpád's Hungarians arrived, since we have established that the conquering Hungarians mixed with the Avar population of the Carpathian Basin, to varying degrees at the individual level, but with the continued presence of Avar genetic heritage. In addition, our analyses have demonstrated the untenability of the dogmas of the social sciences since it is no longer possible to continue to apply simplistic formulae about the origins of a people.

Káptalan Hill, St. László's Day procession with the St. László's Herm, viewed from Gutenberg Square, 1939.Source: Fortepan/Konok Tamás Sr.

- I understand that you support the theory that the Hungarian language was in fact the language of the Avars and that we now speak "Avar". How is it possible to form an opinion on linguistic matters through natural scientific research?

- The genetic evidence also supports the previously rejected hypothesis that Árpád's Hungarians may have been multilingual. In the same way as, for example, the Scythians in the Iron Age or the Huns of Attila the Hun. Of course, genetic data do not determine what language an individual once spoke. But we can tell where populations originated or with whom they mixed. So, from the current genetic data, it seems logical to me that the Hungarian language may have been present in the Carpathian Basin before the time of the conquest. However, this is only a question to be investigated. Historical linguists will be the ones who can provide the answer. For the time being, the lack of resources means that, on the basis of genetic data, this is a possible scenario which the social sciences can neither reject nor confirm. But back to the question "what did the Hungarians give us?" Perhaps it was the ability to organise the state and the strength to do so that Árpád's Hungarians brought to the Carpathian Basin in the ninth century and that the kings of Árpád perfected.

- Let's finally talk about the real sensation: your recently published research reveals that the Győr herm actually contains the skull of Saint László. According to other researchers, it was not even possible to take a usable DNA sample from the skull. How did you do it?

- I'll never forget that I was able to take a sample from the skull relic kept in the Herm in Győr on 4 June 2021, thanks to the Diocese of Győr and the organizing work of Alida Lilla Kristóf. They did all this despite the fact that the project was doomed to failure, as it had been previously described in black and white that the skull did not contain any useful DNA. Still, we tried, as I believe in the progress of molecular biology and we always use the latest technologies in our lab. Under the new protocol, we tried to obtain hereditary material from the tooth of the skull preserved in the herm, and miraculously we were able to isolate some of the best autologous (endogenous) DNA I have ever extracted in any of my previous research. Finally, we performed archaeogenomic analysis on the sample, which is routine only in our institute in Hungary. The result: the sample has an Árpád House Y chromosome and is five generations distant from Béla III.

- How could you determine the generational distance?

- This can only be done by comparing body chromosomes using the computer software developed by our research group. The logic is that the offspring receive about half and half of the genetic material from their parents, and so we get less and less detectable DNA information from generation to generation. Therefore, from the grandparents, the grandchild receives a quarter of the genetic material. Using our software, we are able to identify small genome fragments 4-5 generations apart - or closer - from whole genome sequenced archaic samples. Since the software has identified the skull preserved in the Herm, to be five generations away from the skull of King Béla III, it can only belong to our King Saint László. I am delighted to be one of the few people who have been able to hold and examine the head relic of St. László. Thanks to this research, he became the first saint in the world whose identity has been confirmed by archaeogenetic research. I also consider this symbolic, because whenever the Hungarians appealed to King László in their time of need, he always appeared and helped. The heroes of Hungarians are real and are still with us today. Our results have been published in the international Journal of Genetics and Genomics and will be published in Hungarian in the near future.

- What else have you learned about the Knight King's DNA?

- The highest-resolution analyses showed that the eastern component of the genome of Saint László matches the component recently identified by the research team as typical of the conquering elite, which makes up about 15 percent of the knight-king's genome. This result confirms the common ancestry of the Árpád dynasty, also known as the Turul ethnic group, and the conquering elite, and refutes the possibility raised by some historians that the Árpád dynasty was a ruling family of foreign origin, placed at the head of the conquering Hungarians by an external power.

- What exactly is Asian genetic heritage?

- If we examine the genome data with principal component analysis, then, in simple terms, the European samples map to one edge and the Asian samples to the other. If a sample lies between these two endpoints, it carries roughly 50 percent European and 50 percent Asian genetic heritage. The genome composition of our King St. László made him even more closely linked to the conquering Hungarians, and he carried fewer European genes than the kings of later centuries, who bore an increasingly complex genetic heritage as a result of dynastic marriages."

The interview is available on the website of Magyar Demokrata weekly.